33. Tansley and Ecology 1898-1911

By the end of the nineteenth century the whole of evolutionary biology was becalmed. There were no bright ideas of alternative mechanisms and most experiments came to nothing. Overall, there was a serious loss of faith in progress coinciding with talk of the decline of Empire, the fall of whole cultures of different social classes and families and even of some of these habits becoming extinct. Without the aim of eternity or some other utopia, many Edwardians became afraid that much of what they stood for and held so dear, was soon to be at risk. Furthermore, there was no confident group of charismatic scientists to consider the old Victorian thinking about evolution and decide what to hold on to and where progress might be made.

Lankester’s teaching colleagues at University College were having happier times pioneering excursions outside in the environment, especially with the innovations of a young lecturer called Arthur Tansley (1871-1955) who realised just how important the environment was. It was the missing part in the story of how and why each species existed: their unique environment explained the causes and reasons for its adaptation.

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As a junior lecturer in the Botany Department at University College Tansley became a popular figure within the Students’ Union. As its Vice-President in 1898 he often gave casual talks and one was quoted more than the others, The Origin of Death. It began with the simple observation that an Amoeba just splits into two new animals at the end of its life, so nothing ever dies and he pointed to other species that are part of some similarly mutually dependent system. Some in his audience wondered whether they were another manifestation of Jekyll’s split, part of a process that was sometimes creative, even defying death?

In his first formal lectures, Tansley helped out his two biology professors who both had star status as teachers at London’s university. Of course, one was Lankester who often returned to his old college in Gower Street and the other was Tansley’s mentor Professor Francis W. Oliver another environmental botanist, this one most interested in how plants could grow in unstable places like sand dunes. They knew it was going to be decades before the main processes would be understood because plant communities took time to become established, especially on new shingle and many of the processes that were involved weren’t even properly recognised. The length of time needed for complete studies of the natural processes became another reason why this kind of work was overshadowed by the quicker laboratory experiments giving data for the statistics and biometry. The softer ecology wasn’t going to provide a quick fix.

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Earlier, Oliver had lectured beside Lankester to large and vociferous audiences of medical students. They were both concerned by the horrible unhealthy conditions in many London streets and they applied their research to look into the biology of the problems, Oliver on the effect of atmospheric coal dust on vegetation and Lankester on water-borne diseases on human health. The work introduced Tansley to look at the effects of salt spray on the plants which grow on sand dunes, shingle beaches and in salt marshes. He studied the interactions between the plants and these extreme environments which played a big part in enabling these formations to build up on the sea coast. They needed constant monitoring over many years so Oliver, Tansley and groups of their students made seasonal measurements on the north coast of Norfolk where the shingle beach system was continually being destroyed by storms and regenerated. They measured changes in geography and meteorology as well as the flora and fauna, making some of the earliest ecological experiments.

It was becoming clear to the young Tansley that the full impact of evolution’s cultural importance spread far from science, to religion, the arts and to politics. But biology was moving further away from the holism and unity that were common in mid-Victorian times. Polymaths like Darwin and Galton were becoming extinct as the twentieth century heralded specialisation and hard-nosed objectivity. In so much of the new research quantitative experiments were given priority.

Not only did they work together at this same time but Ray Lankester and Arthur Tansley were good friends, part of the new middle class following the old romantic tradition but with liberal attitudes. Though they both stuck fundamentally to the guidelines about natural selection laid down in the 1850s by Darwin they went in different directions to find an answer. At the beginning of the twentieth century Tansley lectured on phytogeography at Toynbee Hall, how plants behaved in changing environments. Lankester’s old German friend Haeckel had called these studies “oecology”, a word Tansley was to anglicise later to “ecology”.

This approach to the life sciences was something completely new and set itself aside from the traditional methods of examining specimens once they’d been collected or experimented with in the laboratory. It was more in the tradition of the romantic English naturalists like John Ray and Gilbert White, looking at the balance of nature out in the wild, getting cold and dirty but seeing it all got together, quietly working away at being alive. Studying this new ecology was just as important for understanding life as trying to know something about its inheritance and inner structure.

Oliver and Tansley wanted to bring these three parts of plant evolution together. Because they had to present the subject to critical audiences of medical students they were looking for a good story to liven up their lectures. They saw that changing environments played a major role in changing morphologies of the plants: here were several scenes that any good teacher would relish, let alone these biologists researching the latest advances in geological time, dynamic environments, and large groups of extinct organisms. In London at University College, Lankester had set them a high standard both in research and its teaching. Oliver thought physiology might account for some of the adaptations to the swampy environments that he found in his beloved Norfolk; Tansley linked these to growth in these same constantly changing environments; and one of Oliver’s other students, Marie Stopes, went on to study the same systems back in geological time when the coal measures were being formed in the warm and humid Carboniferous swamp forests. It was integrated science, all on the cutting edge, and the students loved it.

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Tansley was pivotal in yoking the concerns of professional botanists to the activities of naturalist societies in the national survey projects of the British Vegetation Committee that he co-founded in 1904. As the scope of these necessarily collaborative survey activities was broadened to include botanists from outside Britain, Tansley founded the International Phytogeographical Excursion, hosted first by the British botanists and subsequently by the Americans a few years later. To acquaint the non-British scientists with local vegetation, of which they knew virtually nothing, Tansley edited and wrote Types of British Vegetation, the first systematic account of British vegetation, and it immediately found a large home market besides the botanists who had joined that first Excursion.  In 1911 this British Vegetation Committee became the British Ecological Society, the world’s first ecological organization and Tansley was its first president.

Oliver, Tansley and Stopes wanted to link these three parts of plant evolution together. Because they were involved with presenting the subject to critical audiences of medical students they were looking for a good story to liven up their lectures. They saw that changing environments played a major role in changing morphologies of the plants: here were several scenes that any good teacher would relish, let alone these biologists researching the latest advances with geological time, dynamic environments, and large groups of extinct organisms. In London at University College Lankester had set them a high standard both in research and its teaching and these three successors rose to his challenge. Oliver thought physiology might account for some of the adaptations to the swampy environments that he found in his beloved Norfolk, Tansley linked these to growth in these same constantly changing environments and Stopes went on to study the same systems back in geological time when the coal measures were being formed in the warm and humid Carboniferous swamp forests. It was integrated science, all on the cutting edge of scientific knowledge at the time, and the students loved it.

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Stopes moved on with the same work to Manchester and Tansley went from London to a Cambridge lectureship in 1906. By then he was becoming famous for describing different kinds of habitats and their ecology, and infamous for not being able to remember the names of plants when he was out in the field. His ecology was all about a gradual succession to some stable climax for flora and fauna, and it was never placed at the front of scientific advances in evolutionary biology. No-one seemed to care then about adaptation to the environment or climate change or catastrophes like tsunamis or meteorites hitting the earth and causing havoc. Instead, ecology was seen as a tool the Empire could use to produce more food and other resources and Stopes’ studies of coal actually helped find the most productive form of energy readily available at the time.

1909 Tansley wrote to HG Wells with a preview of a lecture he was to give about over-population. “This cannot go on. Man must come to a limit. Then the real science will come in.” He wrote that human numbers were threatening to turn the world into a sort of formicarium or agaricarium, like an old cheese full of mites. Population had to be controlled – atomic motors and land reclamation from the deserts would be insufficient.

More academically involved with their contemporary ecology, Oliver and Tansley began to realise what important work on natural history was already being done out in the English countryside by groups of amateur enthusiasts. There were hundreds of small local societies made up of people who loved the animals and plants living out in the wild and Tansley brought them together and gave them high status as a British Vegetation Committee. In 1911 this became the British Ecological Society, in the same year his little book Types of British Vegetation set an international standard for descriptions of world environmental types. It was an important mission at the time to consider the world’s resources and to organise their management in economic plans of countries and Empires.

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